I was talking to a friend the other day, a former journalist who has covered lots of political campaigns. We were talking about the current races for Monterey County supervisor, particularly the contest between incumbent Jane Parker and former Salinas mayor Dennis Donohue.
Over the past week or so, the news coverage has been filled with criticism of Donohue’s over-the-top accusations against Parker. Below-the-belt might be a better description. He alleged that she has something against military veterans and had voted against establishing the veterans cemetery at Fort Ord. He falsely asserted that she had somehow delayed the cemetery project, costing Monterey County lots of money and lots of job.
Donohue had “gone negative,” which most candidates do these days. Parker has come out with some ads critical of his source of campaign money. That’s going negative. But Donohue had gone farther, all the way to dirty. Going negative is when you criticize your opponent’s record. Going dirty is when you make stuff up.
Fortunately for the voters, state Sen. Bill Monning jumped into the fray and made it clear that Parker had actually supported the cemetery each step of the way and that, despite the impression Donohue tried to make, the cemetery is actually nearing completion at the former Army base. From the tone of the resulting discussion, it appears that Donohue’s strategy backfired badly. The conversation now begins, “I always liked Dennis, but … .”
During my talk with my friend the other day, I mentioned how how much big money had been injected into the Donohue campaign. Big for a local election. Lots of checks for $20,000, $40,000, even $50,000, mostly from growers and other business interests. And my friend had something interesting to say about that. He said that the big contributions had backed Donohue into a corner of sorts, essentially forcing him go dirty.
I scratched my head. He explained that the big contributions had put Donohue in the position of needing to win, no matter how.
His thinking went like this. When people contribute $100 or $500 to a City Council or supervisorial campaign, they’re doing so because they know the candidate and/or appreciate the candidate’s position on the issues. But when a business contributes $20,000 or more to a campaign, it’s an investment. The money isn’t being spent in support of friendship or good government. It’s an investment and the investor expects a return. The recipient is expected to win and to make sure the investor receives something in return, something worth at least the amount invested.
In one sense, my friend was cutting Donohue a little slack. His internal polling likely told him he was trailing Parker in the District 4 race, and he knew that campaign brochures showing him posting with farmers and cops and such wasn’t going to do it. To win, he’d have to go after Parker, and what was there to say?
Donohue could have said, as he has, that Parker has some strong environmentalist leanings and is receiving lots of support from environmentalists. But he likely realized that such an approach was just as likely to help her as hurt her.
He could have kept stressing in his campaign literature that he has received the endorsements from most of the mayors in the district. But most people in the district don’t know who the mayors are and those who do know might not be really impressed by their views.
So, my friend suggested, Donohue was left with little else but to play the veteran card. It had worked before. Developers of the hugely controversial Monterey Downs horse racing/commercial/residential development at Fort Ord had done everything possible to link the fate of their project to the veterans cemetery project and, in the process, they had tricked some representatives of veterans group into loudly supporting the horse racing venture. A couple of ballot measures related to the horse racing project were decided by the nonsensical argument that a vote against horse racing was a vote against veterans. It was dirty pool but it worked, though the developers still haven’t come up with enough money or water to make their venture go.
Still, the veterans gambit confused voters once, so the Donohue people apparently figured it was worth another try. What else were they going to do? Win by running a campaign of ideas? Win by pointing to Donohue’s successes as mayor? Win by knocking on doors and answering questions? Clearly that wasn’t working so they made the choice to go negative, to go dirty, to go nasty or go home. As my friend said, with all those investors behind them, excuse me, contributors, what choice did they have?
I’ve always been a cynical sort. I long ago realized that our political system is as much about business as it is about government. But I hadn’t ever looked at things quite the way my friend does. I almost wish we hadn’t had the conversation.
By the way, here’s Parker’s latest mailer, Jane Parker May 14 2016 mailer, which goes after Donohue for his campaign contributions. And expect District 5 supervisorial candidate Mary Adams to go after incumbent Dave Potter‘s voting record in the next week or so. It’s fair game, in both cases, but if anyone spots any truth bending, shout it out. In the same vein, a group of local Adams supporters has just put out a flyer going after Potter’s support for the Monterey Downs project, focusing on a laudatory letter he sent to the mayor of Seaside. And here it is: